Forest Hill Anglicans put out place mats as a welcome mat
By Mark Brolly
March 23 2016
St Mark’s Anglican Church in Forest Hill has not so much put out the welcome mat as a place mat for all comers – from “couch surfers” to the lonely, as well as senior citizens and the unemployed.
On the first Thursday of the month, St Mark’s puts on a free community meal and, apart from building relationships in its community, it has also created links with agencies, council and community groups in the eastern suburbs.
The Revd Matthew Connolly, who was at St Mark’s until his transfer to St John’s Toorak as Assistant Curate last month, said the idea emerged after the Revd Phil Meulman arrived as Vicar in September 2014.
“We were looking at ways we could reach out and be more present in the community,” Mr Connolly explained when TMA visited on Derby Day last November. “This was one of the things we thought we could do.”
The community meals began in August last year. The program has about 20 volunteers and support from local businesses in Forest Hill Chase and Brentford Square shopping centres, as well as groups such as the Community Advice Bureau and local council. In October, the local Federal and State MPs, Mr Michael Sukkar (Deakin) and Mr Neil Angus (Forest Hill) respectively, attended the meal and offered their encouragement. And a diocesan grant to promote community engagement has helped the program build momentum.
“You need the runs on the board before people donate,” Mr Connolly said.
He said about 20% of people in Forest Hill lived alone and that it was an ageing area. The homeless found it difficult to obtain accommodation in the area and, as elsewhere, had resorted to “couch surfing”, going from one friend to another in order to secure safe shelter for a night or two.
“We put a person on each table as a host to start a conversation or just listen, to get people talking, to hear what is happening and that gives us an idea of what people are going through,” he said. “So later on, we can scratch where it itches, so to speak.”
The first meal drew 36 guests seven months ago but this rose to more than 80 for the Christmas lunch on 3 December, which also included a carols service.
“Our guests come not only for the food but also for the company, and we also have people ringing up wanting to volunteer their time,” Mr Connolly said.
“It has been exciting to see the many doors which are opening up with the local council, politicians and many other relief agencies and businesses. There is an appreciation of this initiative and service. It is showing the church to be present and reflecting God’s love in our community.”